Mérida, February 14, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Juan Barreto, the Mayor of Caracas, transferred control of Caracas’s Metropolitan Police to the federal Ministry of Justice and the Interior Wednesday. The changeover, created by presidential decree January 18th, comes amidst several government initiatives so far this year aimed at reforming Venezuela’s police forces and improving citizen security, including the Ministry’s “Caracas Security Plan” and a new National Police Law.
Minister of Justice and the Interior Ramón Rodríguez Chacín said it was a “privilege” to take charge of the capital’s police, declaring that “we need to construct a socialist, revolutionary, and subversive police force…we must rise up against the yokes that oppress the body of the police, and know that human beings are the most important thing.”
The Vice Minister of Citizen Security, Tarek El-Aissami, commented that the Ministry intends to convert this force into a “communal police,” and to “purify” it, because “within the Metropolitan Police there are very valiant and capable people, but without a doubt all the officials who commit irregularities will be submitted to a technical process of evaluation.”
Barreto expressed hope that the transfer would help satisfy his city’s need for 50,000 security personnel, a need that he believes his budget would never have been able to fulfill. Even though his administration dedicated 26% of the municipal budget to Caracas’s security forces, the number of metropolitan police officers declined by more than a third, from 14,000 to 8,600, the mayor claimed. Now, the $163 million that used to go to police will not be cut from the budget, but instead re-distributed to municipal health, education, and infrastructure projects.
The transfer is consistent with the ideals of the National Police Law presented to President Chávez last month for passage by presidential decree. The law proposes to unify Venezuela’s 126 currently separate municipal and state police forces into one body with comprehensive authority to monitor the country’s transportation systems, customs, anti-drug enforcement, delinquency, anti-corruption efforts, criminal investigations, communal order, and the security of political leaders, according to Article 26 of the proposal. The law will also create a police rights defense commission, and a separate commission that focuses on human rights violations.
Upon receiving the proposal, President Chávez commented that crime is a complex part of a larger “culture of violence” based on the “values of capitalism,” the inequalities of which are “like a lit match in a barrel of gunpowder.” He declared that citizen security requires moving at different velocities, rhythms, and levels, and that there will be peace when there is justice.
The National Police Law was formulated by way of a nation-wide deliberation process coordinated by the National Police Reform Council (CONAREPOL) created in 2006. The council`s main principle was that “the best way to improve security forces is through the participation of everybody,” the Minister of Justice and the Interior at the time, Jesse Chacón, articulated.
Between August and October of 2006, 700,000 Venezuelans participated in the CONAREPOL’s police reform conferences, which took place in every state. Local police officers and civil society groups debated the reform in separate caucuses, then held joint sessions to decide on the principles and priorities of the law. The proposal presented to President Chávez by the Interior and Justice Ministry last month complies with CONAREPOL’s recommendations, according to council member Soraya El Achkar.
In an exposition of CONAREPOL’s proceedings, Professor El Achkar outlined an “integral” approach to policing, where “the ideal would be to restructure the internal monitoring mechanisms so that the process of purification can be permanent, but also an external monitoring mechanism should be created, in which the community also exercises control over the police.”
CONAREPOL also recommended the re-education of the police with a focus on human rights, legal knowledge, proximity with the community, and the progressive use of force. Re-education is especially important for Caracas police, who are shown in studies to have the highest incidence of lethal force, El Achkar commented.
As a federal pilot project, the Interior and Justice Ministry launched the “Caracas Security Plan” on January 10th in five sectors of Caracas. Vice Minister El-Aissami announced earlier this week that in its first month, the plan reduced homicides from 64 per week to 20 per week, led to the arrests of 617 wanted criminals, recuperated 17 stolen cars and 24 motorcycles, and confiscated 12,849 parcels of crack, cocaine, and marijuana. Chacín added that overall crime in Caracas was reduced by 67% in the first month of the plan.
However, news reports indicate that homicides rose from 5,974 in 1999 to a peak of 12,829 in 2007, and that the number of homicides per 10,000 persons grew 300% during that time. Chacín criticized the media for emphasizing these long-term statistics and ignoring changes since the Caracas Security Plan commenced, and asserted that solutions will not be immediate, nor will crime end with one operation.
Beyond the federal government, local neighborhoods have set up communal police squads through the citizen security commissions of their community councils. Citing article 9 of the April 2006 Community Council law, the “January 23” barrio in Caracas announced the graduation of 200 community officers from a three month training program last month. Training workshops included special emphasis on the rights of women, indigenous peoples, the handicapped, first aid, ethics, pedestrian transit, and knowledge of the law.
Members of these community security commissions emphasize that they are unarmed, and that their purpose is “citizen support,” not repression, and they claim to be markedly different than the gangs that have traditionally controlled their streets by force. They say they possess the most intimate knowledge of their local crime patterns. Food security falls within their duty to protect human rights, which is why one of their main functions is to monitor the operation of the federal subsidized food market known as Mercal. Another Caracas barrio, Petare, boasts a communal police force of 60 that is aimed at forming “leaders in crime prevention.”
Minister Chacín echoed Chávez`s denunciation of increased activity of Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuelan communities, calling on officers of the Metropolitan Police to struggle against the paramilitaries who “promote delinquency, the trafficking of drugs, commit horrendous crimes, and plant seeds of terror in the population.”